Literary Life Cycles: The Careers of Modern American Poets
NBER Working Paper No. 9856
This paper examines the careers of eleven leading American poets of the past century. Using the frequency with which poems are reprinted in anthologies as a measure of their importance, quantitative analysis reveals that among these poets there were two distinctly different life cycles: one group produced their most important work early in their careers, in their 20s and 30s, while the other group produced their most important work considerably later, in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s. These different career patterns appear to reflect differences in the nature of their poetry. The conceptual poets, including E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, arrived early and suddenly at a technically sophisticated poetry based on imagination and study of literary history, whereas Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and the other experimental poets arrived later and more gradually at a poetry rooted in real speech and observation.